Splash by way of Frank Tashlin (Splashlin?), with a big dose of eco-message movie and action movie tangents, Stephen Chow’s invigorating, irreverent, slapstick, but occasionally serious, comedy The Mermaid is an odd beast to pin down. You want a light, starcrossed romance? You’ve got it, albeit one where the rich cad (Liu Xuan) is just as much of a buffoon as the mermaid (Lin Yun) who tapes up her fin to form makeshift legs. Also, the mermaid is trying to murder him for his company’s part in slowly wiping out her people.
The Mermaid’s mile-a-minute nature is inclined to make one think it’s not an easy sell, yet, at the time of writing, it’s already the highest grossing film ever released in China, after barely a month in play, with the equivalent of 500 million US dollars already made in that territory alone. When Sony snuck it out into a very small number of US and UK cinemas on the weekend beginning February 19 (with nary a hint of promotion), the per screen averages were stunning: in the US, over $1 million was made from just 35 venues that weekend. Over half a billion dollars made worldwide by a film where a human-octopus hybrid is forced to self-harm in order to covertly disguise an attempted assassination. Twice. In 3D.
The secret to the appeal, beyond considerable goodwill for Chow’s back catalogue (Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer among them), is, I think, its perfect distillation of the best elements of broad comedy, all while actually having visible direction behind it. The jokes aren’t lost in translation because they’re in the very fabric of the film’s visual construction. With the exception of the films of Edgar Wright and the duo of Phil Lord and Chris Miller, mainstream English-language comedy of late has been largely dominated by standard medium shots of improvised riffs; comedy films put together in the editing room rather than constructed on their way to their being shot. The humour is largely left on the shoulders of the performers alone, as opposed to them being just one part of a full exploitation of the medium.
Chow’s comedies, though, are alive in every frame. His key stars are all wonderful, but he uses the technology at his disposal to enhance and maximise the full comedic potential of everything surrounding them. He is a director who understands that the biggest laughs often come from sight and the movement of players and objects within the frame, rather than a witty line amid myriad witty lines being thrown at you. The camera can be the greatest comedian of all.
Josh Slater-Williams (@jslaterwilliams) is a freelance writer based in England. Alongside writing for Vague Visages, he is a regular contributor to independent British magazine The Skinny and has written for Little White Lies magazine, VODzilla.co, The Film Stage, and PopOptiq.